Suppose a novelist had written a story about a brilliant con man who, between the ages of 16 and 21, passed himself off as an airline pilot, doctor, lawyer and college professor while simultaneously forging and cashing $2.5 million worth of bad checks in the United States and abroad.
Who would take such a plot seriously? To make matters more implausible, the young man, after serving time in prison in three countries, winds up working for the FBI, as does one of his sons. Really?
Well, yes, really, which is what makes the narrative compelling. Frank Abagnale, Jr. chronicled his exploits in the (ghostwritten) autobiography "Catch Me If You Can," which inspired the Steven Spielberg film of the same name, which led to a 2011 Broadway musical.
Abagnale is very fond of both the movie and the musical, which tell the story in very different ways. The film is essentially a cat-and-mouse chase, while the show takes the form of a 1960s variety show. But both pieces underscore Abagnale's redemption, and that is what matters most to him. Although he understands the public's fascination with his improbable and seemingly glamorous life on the run, he says that what's important to him is all that he has accomplished since he served time and gave up his life of crime.
In addition to his continuing association with the FBI, which began as a condition of his parole, he has his own security consulting firm and is considered one of the world's leading authorities on forgery and embezzlement.
He has developed numerous fraud prevention programs that are used by more than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies. He is also a dynamic, in-demand lecturer who, says O'Brien, is "full of charisma, a real star."
"When I look back, I'm not amazed by what I did between the ages of 16 and 21," says Abagnale. "What truly amazes me is where my life went when I got out of prison."
For Abagnale, who ran away from home when his parents divorced, the scheming and scamming and running are far more fun on screen and stage than they were in real life.
"I was a teenage boy on my own, and I cried myself to sleep many nights," he says. "I couldn't get too close to anyone, I couldn't confide in anyone. It was a very lonely life. At first I tried getting jobs working in a store, but I realized I wasn't going to make enough money to live on. I looked older, and I thought that if I lied about my age, I could make more money."
And if he did things that were illegal, he could make even more money. He started his life of crime rather innocuously, but the more he got away with things, the more chances he took.
"I was very creative and observant, and I was able to look at things and figure out how to get around them," he says. "And being an adolescent, I was fearless. I never thought about the consequences, although I always knew I'd get caught. It was actually a relief, because it became part of my past. I couldn't have dreamed where all of that would lead me. I couldn't have imagined that I'd have a wonderful wife and three terrific sons. But I would never want to live those years over again."
(This feature appears in the November 2012 subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)